Europe’s top clubs lost €4bn last season as player wages rose, claims Uefa report

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Player wages rose across Europe in 2021 even as club revenues continued to fall, a Uefa report has found. Top-flight clubs made a combined €4bn (£3.4bn) loss in the Covid-hit 2020-21 season, according to the report, while wages rose by an average of 2%.

In total, wage costs – and agents’ fees – accounted for spending that equalled 91% of revenue. This led to an increase in outside lending, with clubs taking on more than €750m in new debt.

Uefa’s Club Licensing Benchmarking Report is an authoritative study of 724 clubs who compete in the 54 top divisions of its member countries. It paints a picture of a sport broadsided by Covid and riven by structural inequalities, posting numbers that underline calls for reform of the game’s finances.

Andrea Traverso, Uefa’s director of financial sustainability and research, said the report “clearly demonstrates” the need for change. “There are really only two things that can protect football and prepare it for future shocks,” he says in an introduction to the report.

“The first is a meaningful move towards better cost control, in particular in relation to wages and transfers, and greater emphasis on long-term investments in infrastructure and youth development. The second … is to rebuild the equity buffer. Cash reserves shored up over the past decade have been an important first line of defence against revenue shortfalls.”

The majority of losses accrued by clubs came from the effect of playing behind closed doors, with revenues from ticket sales falling by 88% in 2020-21. Clubs were also hit by a fall in transfer revenues, with money generated by sales dropping by 40%. These two factors, Traverso argues, helped to drive up wages as clubs tied down players to extended contracts.

“Clubs throughout the top 20 leagues have had to choose between limiting new salary deals, even if that means putting player assets valued on their balance sheets at €13bn at risk, or protecting those assets by extending player contracts,” he says.

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There are qualifications in the report, with some of the 2020-21 figures based on the accounts of 95 “early reporting” clubs. The delayed end to the 2019-20 season also deferred revenues for some clubs. The report suggests reasons to be hopeful, with a rise in the value of key sponsorship and kit deals and good prospects for future international TV rights. Most importantly, 2021-22 saw the return of fans to stadiums and the passion that local communities continue to have for their clubs.

The Uefa president, Aleksander Ceferin, said: “The Covid crisis has highlighted to what extent football is part of the fabric of European life. Football was a true lifeline for many. I will make no bold predictions for the year ahead, except to say that, whether the pandemic stays or goes, European football will remain strong, stable and united in 2022.”

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